“An inspiration to us all”, “a meaningful experience for my whole family”, and “an unforgettable evening”! These are just some of the accolades from the 700 friends and supporters who attended the Friendship Circle’s Annual Banquet on Wednesday, February 16 at the Birchwood Manor in Whippany, New Jersey.
The evening included musical entertainment from virtuoso pianist Gershon Wachtel and a special video presentation highlighting the Friendship Circle camps. The highlight of the evening was the tributes to the 525 volunteers for their dedication and hard work on behalf of the Friendship Circle and to the Guests of Honor, Nancy and Barry Lefkowitz and Beth and Martin Statfeld, for their commitment to families who have children with special needs throughout the community.
Bassie Shemtov, Director of the Friendship Circle in Detroit and national co-founder of the program, paid tribute to the volunteers. “The friendships you create, nurture, and maintain, will enhance every aspect of your lives forevermore”, she said. “By going beyond the borders of your own world, to find very special treasures in the worlds of very special people, you embrace the finest life has to offer – the principles of faith and trust…the heart of the Friendship Circle.”
Barry and Nancy Lefkowitz were honored for their role in helping to found the Friendship Circle and their commitment to improving the educational and social experiences of special needs children. Barry Lefkowitz is the Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer at Mack-Cali Realty Corporation. Paying tribute to Barry and serving as the couple’s introduction was Mr. Mitchell Hersh, President and CEO of Mack-Cali.
Martin and Beth Statfeld recognized for their continued support of the Friendship Circle and the MetroWest Jewish community. Martin Statfeld is President of Statfeld Vantage Insurance Group, a subsidiary of Brown and Brown Metro New Jersey. Beth, who is known professionally as Dr. Leiderman, is a child psychologist maintaining a private practice while serving as the school psychologist at The Winston School in Short Hills, which serves capable children with learning differences.
In introducing their parents, Jenna and Dani Statfeld fondly recalled their own involvement in the Friendship Circle. “Volunteering to those of us who have experienced it,” said Jenna, “doesn’t seem like an adequate description because of how much we learn and we gain.” Dani added that, “Initially, when I began volunteering, I assumed that I would be giving my assistance to someone in need. However, I quickly learned that the Friendship Circle is not just about one side giving and the other taking. As the program’s name implies, there is a circle of giving and sharing in which each individual takes part.”
The Friendship Circle was launched in October 2000 to identify and engage families who have children with special needs through a full range of social and educational experiences, and to enrich, inspire and motivate Jewish teens through sharing of themselves with others while at the same time providing parents with much needed respite. In just five short years the program has grown to 185 families who have children with special needs benefiting from the programs. Most recently a new office was opened to service children and teens in Bergen County.
In addition to being a source of comfort and companionship to those who are often forced to endure loneliness and rejection, the teen volunteers reap the vast rewards derived from giving of themselves. It is impossible to determine who most benefits from Friendship Circle programs—the child with special needs who learns how to ride a bicycle, her parents who are able to enjoy a few hours of much-needed rest and relaxation, or the volunteer whose spirit soars to new heights after witnessing the joy they are capable of bringing to others.
As one of the fastest growing Jewish organization in northern New Jersey, the Friendship Circle’s wide array innovative programming promotes a greater awareness and understanding of both the unique needs and unique gifts of those with special needs, and encourages respect and empathy for those facing difficult challenges.
Executive Director Rabbi Zalman Grossbaum promised that, “We will not rest on our laurels. Our newest focus is centered on creating programs to help teens with special needs. In addition to a wide variety of programs, we are putting our efforts into advancing the social and life-skills that they will needs as they grow older and closer to independence.” This exciting program will include a Volunteer Club for these teens, with specially designed opportunities for them to contribute to the community and to develop an increased sense of self-worth through the process of giving back.
The banquet was best summed up by Halli and Mark Katz. “We often get caught up in our busy schedules,” they said, “but this special evening reminded us about what is really important in life. I can’t begin to describe how much the Friendship Circle means to our son Matthew and our family. Life can be very lonely for a child with special needs, but the Friendship Circle has provided Matthew with an opportunity to have ‘special friends’ in his life.”
The Friendship Circle is a project of the Living Legacy and was founded in partnership with the Rabbinical College of America-Lubavitch and the Jewish Family Service of MetroWest through generous grants by the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey and the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest.